Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Now for even better news: Frank returns with a flawless world premiere production of a terrific one-act play, Fetal, by Trista Baldwin. Fetal takes place on June 24, 2022. The specific date matters because the play is set in a women's reproductive health clinic on one of the days they provide abortions, and that is the date the United States Supreme Court ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade, which since 1973 had made legal access to abortion the law of the land. Also, for what it's worth, the clinic is in Texas, a state not too friendly to reproductive choice.
I knew I couldn't miss whatever Frank was doing, but did scratch my head and wonder: do we really need a play about the abortion issue now? Hasn't everything been said that can be said about this fraught issue, leaving us with a hopeless blue state/red state divide that all the plays in the world will never bridge?
Turns out, yes, we do need this play, urgently. Fetal powerfully examines the injustice of restricting a woman's right to have control over their own bodies, but also considers every aspect of that momentous decision. It unsheathes the notion held by some who oppose allowing free choice that a woman makes their decision lightly, that allowing abortion as an option makes it as mindless an event as taking two aspirin. The audience at Fetal sits spellbound watching three women with very different circumstances think through the rationale for why they should–or should not–go through with the abortions they seek. If nothing else comes of their tribulations, anyone would have to see that the decision to abort a pregnancy is rarely easy or clean cut.
The set, cannily designed by Rick Polenek, has the shabby feel of a clinic waiting room in a not-too well-funded medical clinic, including a coffee station set up on a folding table, a mini-fridge with a taped sign that reads "Clinic Staff Only," and nondescript framed pictures that barely pass for art and seem to be there mainly to offer patients some relief from the glare of blank white spaces. There are three sets of stiff-back metal chairs, the kind used in event centers that can be easily stacked and removed. Because Fetal is presented in Frank's small rehearsal studio, the audience of forty is brought very close to the performing space, as if we are also waiting in that same space.
One by one the morning's patients arrive: first Cass (Julia Valen), a no-holds-barred lesbian who became pregnant (not for the first time) through a one-night fling with a hot guy after her long-time partner broke up with her. Cass is followed by Lucy (Carolyn Pool), a forty-seven-year-old married career woman and bread-winner in her family, who had her first and only child at age thirty-nine. She is certain that neither her body nor her family's finances could survive another pregnancy. Last to enter is Liv (Elena Yazzie), a teenager who got pregnant after giving in to her boyfriend's and her own urges. She, her strictly religious parents, and all her friends espouse the belief that sex outside of marriage is a sin, one which will be seriously compounded by aborting the product of that sin–yet she fears facing the wrath of her parents and being spurned by her friends if they learn the truth.
The three woman each settle into a different bank of chairs, occupying themselves with their cellphone (Cass), thumbing through magazines drawn from a steel rack set on the wall (Lucy), or anxiously twirling their thumbs around one another (Liv). They each withdraw into the isolating effect of their purpose until eventually the ice is broken–quite believably, through complaints about being kept waiting for what feels like a very long time–and they begin to make connections.
A fourth woman, Anne (Kate Beahen), enters dressed in medical scrubs. She is the intake worker whose job is to check their paperwork, present the litany of possible after-effects of abortion–as required by Texas state law–even though she and the patients–well, Cass and Lucy, at least–know that many of them lack any medical evidence, and then, to listen to their stories, to learn why they have chosen to abort their pregnancy. In this regard, Anne pushes the women far beyond what would likely happen in a medical clinic. She seems to know things about their private lives, their relationships, their families, and their health history–and challenges each of them to consider how those elements factor into their decisions regarding their pregnancy, and whether in fact abortion is the right response.
Anne is grueling in pushing each woman to confront difficult facts about themself. It is through this device that we realize how many considerations have gone into each of their decisions to abort their pregnancies. In a way, Anne may represent the inner voices of each woman as they grappled with their circumstances even before walking through the door. Since the interviews are done in front of the other women, the two who are bystanders step in to support the woman under fire when Anne's interrogation gets too rough, raising facts about abortions as well as about the risks of childbirth, which are equal to if not greater than the risks of abortion. The women, though very different from one another, become a web of support, a sisterhood joined by the weight of the choice they all have made.
All four actors–Kate Beahen, Carolyn Pool, Julia Valen and Elena Yazzie–are incredible, and I could not single one out for praise above the others. Their performances all have such a strong ring of authenticity that it would not surprise me in the least if I was to learn that they were each enacting an episode from their own lives. Costume designer Kathy Kohl adds to the feeling of utter authenticity, as if the apparel worn by each woman came from their character's dresser drawer that very morning.
Wendy Knox, Frank Theatre's artistic director, steers this quartet of actors from the cool isolation with which they enter the clinic toward a ratcheting of tension and anxiety as they grapple with the restraints, misinformation and judgements that push back against their wish to exercise their legal right–until the moment comes when it is no longer legal. It feels akin to an air raid attack. What happens now?
Though most of us–certainly most in the crowd usually drawn to Frank Theatre's probing work–have given long thought to the issues raised in Fetal and probably feel set in our positions, the play invokes us to keep our minds open–not necessarily to change our perspective, but open to consider, perhaps even sympathize with, opposing views, to recognize the complexity that could lead a woman to make a different choice, and the humanity that resides within all sides on this thorny subject. The play offers new contexts and sharply drawn language to use in processing these ideas, and especially in conversations with those who hold views different than our own. The play's title, Fetal, tells us it is not about the substance of a pregnancy–that would be "fetus"–but takes the descriptive part of speech. Fetal is not the fetus but is the word we use to attribute qualities to it. It is the language of talking about an issue that can unite or divide a nation.
The playwright's gift in bestowing us with those resources of language and insight, and the artistry with which director, design team, and actors have brought Fetal to vivid life, make Frank Theatre's return one of major events of this still young theatre season.
Fetal runs through November 19, 2023, at the Frank Theatre Studio, 2637 27th Avenue South, #208, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and more information, please visit franktheatre.org or call 612-729-3760.
Playwright: Trista Baldwin; Director: Wendy Knox ; Set Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Assistant Director: Emily A. Grodzik; Stage Manager: Spencer Putney.
Cast: Kate Beahen (Anne), Carolyn Pool (Lucy), Julia Valen (Cass), Elena Yazzie (Liv).